Hamilton Johnson. Chef du Cuisine – Vidalia in DC
Interviewed by Michelle Roberts & Shawn Brown
It’s was a rainy spring afternoon in Washington, DC as Shawn and I headed to Chinatown to have a beer and chat with Hamilton Johnson, a native of Savannah Georgia and tattoo collector. He is also a very talented chef who runs the kitchen at Jeff Buben’s restaurant Vidalia, where in five years he has worked his way up from line cook to sous chef and is currently Chef du Cuisine.
MCR: So, Hamilton, how long have you been a chef? What got you into cooking?
HJ: I’ve been here 5 years, cooking since I was 18 ( thirteen years). I went to culinary school in Charleston. (South Carolina) Almost went to art school for drawing, but didn’t enroll. Fucked that up so I decided to cook instead. My dad and mom cooked, I could cook so I thought I could make money doing it. It was something I enjoyed.
SZB: So your parents cooking influenced you growing up?
HJ: Yeah, my dad cooked, he’s more southern, traditional and my mom is more experimental, so I kind of have a happy melody of both of them.
SZB : But you were going to go to art school first?
HJ: Yeah, I was going to enroll at SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design, but decided not to at the last minute.
SZB: That’s pretty cool because cooking is an art form and its interesting that you were drawn to artistic things in general, eventually finding your way to cooking.
MCR: Were you in Savannah before you came to DC or did you live somewhere in between?
HJ: I was in Charleston. I lived in Charleston for 9 years. I moved there for college and stayed.
SZB: What was you first experience in a restaurant?
HJ: I started in a fine dining restaurant, the best one in my hometown. I worked there for 3 or 4 months, just a summer job before I went to school. I wanted to have some kind of ground work instead of just walking in like, “Here I am”. I wanted to collect some knowledge and experience because I didn’t know shit. I talked to the chef, asked if I could come and work for the summer and learn a little before I went to school and he said yes.
MCR: Your first restaurant job was fine dining? That’s pretty cool. Were you working in the kitchen, what was your job?
HJ: I was a Garde Manger chef, which is cold sides. I made salads. Yeah, I learned a lot in those 3 months.
SZB: What was the hardest part?
HJ: I’d fuck up every day and I’d get reprimanded for it. I’d try to remember not to make the same mistake twice but…
SZB: How did you handle it, you know, getting screamed at the first couple of times?
HJ: Not to well. (Laughs) But it gave me an idea of what my future was, and what it was going to take to succeed.
SZB: And now you know what to yell at people for!
HJ: I get to yell at people, but not too much though. It loses its merit after a while. I don’t want people to live in fear, I want them to do well because they want to do well, not because they fear what I’m going to say.
MCR: So, Charleston 9 years, then what brought you here to DC?
HJ: My friend moved here in about ’06 and he started working at Vidalia. He was like you gotta come check it out and I said I would. I’m small town so…I’d never lived in the city, never really been around the city for the most part. But, I said fuck it I’ll give it a shot. I came up to visit for about a week and they offered me a job. That was November of 07 and I moved here Aprils Fools Day of ’08.
SZB: Im sure that was exciting, moving to DC from a smaller town?
HJ: Yeah, right into the Petworth area too!
SZB: So you were a pioneer?
MCR: Did you know what you were getting into?
HJ: I had no clue.
SZB: What did you think about living there?
HJ: I hated it.
MCR: Did you have any bad experiences while there?
HJ: Yeah, I got held up at gunpoint, dealt with people smoking crack on the back porch. I mean literally, our back porch. We’d have to chase them away with golf clubs. Initially, I was like, what the hell? What am I doing? But then I got used to it and would just walk home with you know, keys in my hand, ready. No one really messed with me except for the one time. I became aware of it all and was like, I don’t want to live like this, in fear, well, not fear but really I guess it was fear…
MCR: Like not having to watch your back all the time. At least not on your back porch!
HJ: Exactly. After I got held up I was walking from Petworth to the bar and the bus was coming up and I heard footsteps behind me. They kept getting louder and faster and the guy was just trying to catch the bus but I thought he was coming after me. I turned around and I’m ready to snatch him and be like “Dude, what the fuck?”
SZB: When did you first get started getting tattooed?
SZB: Did you see tattoos as a child or what was it you saw or that made you want to get tattooed?
HJ: I was always intrigued by art I mean, being an artist. I remember telling my mom I wanted to get a tattoo and she said if I ever get a tattoo she was going to knock me out. I mean, she said it in the nicest way possible. I had always been interested in them. I had drawn tattoos for friends before I ever got tattooed. Then my mom passed away and I thought well, if I’m going to get a tattoo, I’m going to get one for my mom first so I got this one, the initials and the angel. Then, pretty much it all went to hell after that, haha. I love it. I love expressing myself. I love being different then the norm.
MCR: That was in Charleston?
HJ: No, that was in Savannah. A guest artist at Planet Earth tattoo.
SZB: I remember when I first met you you were getting the star collages with girl heads in them.
HJ: Yeah, I stopped and I kinda want to get back to that again. I think you were the last person to tattoo one.
MCR: Who did all those on your arm?
HJ: Shawn here, Dave (Calvacante), Nikki (Balls), Scotty (Milyanovich) from Tattoo Paradise. Tim Dennis from BlueGorilla in Charleston.
MCR: If you could get tattooed by anyone is there someone you really want to be tattooed by?
HJ: I’d like to just keep going with what I’m doing. I like to get tattooed by people I know like Shawn or Scotty or my friend Tim.
MCR: And terms of cooking who is your biggest influence or who do you admire?
HJ: Pierre Gagnaire, a French chef. He is like 80 years old, old school French chef but new, he puts things together you’ve never seen, it’s amazing. He is one of the best.
SZB: How would you describe food at Vidalia?
HJ: American contemporary with a southern twist using French techniques. Pretty straight forward. We like to make what people like, say Chicken and Dumplings with a fine dining twist. Its refined but still familiar.
MCR: People can relate to the food.
HJ: Yeah, I mean you’ve got to think about the guest. You want the guests to be comfortable when they come in and eat. Lets say someone comes in on a date, you don’t want them to feel bad about having to ask the server “What is this?” If you don’t know something, whatever, it’s no big deal but some chefs don’t think about it the same way.
SZB: What about reality cooking shows, do you watch any of those?
HJ: Not really, I mean, I’ve watch some in the past. It’s something to pass the time.
MCR: Do you think it’s helped your industry or hurt it? Do you think everybody is a critic now?
HJ: I think everybody’s more of a critic and I think it gives a false interpretation of what goes on in a kitchen.
SZB: I would say the same thing of the tattoo based reality shows.
HJ: It not awesome and wonderful everyday, some days it’s horrible. You’re not just a chef, you’re a plumber, you’re an electrician, you’re a therapist. It’s more than just cooking.
SZB: That is so interesting because that is exactly how I feel it is with my job as a tattooer.
MCR: Ok, do you have any ingredients you think no kitchen should be without? Or what ingredients are under or over used or appreciated.
HJ: I think pork is the most amazing thing in the world. Anything is good with pork. I think Lemons are very important. Acid. You can always squeeze a little lemon on anything. If something is too salty squeeze a little lemon on it it will tone the salt down. And of course Lemon zest. I also like vinegars. There are a lot types of great vinegars. You can make them too, tomato vinegar, strawberry vinegar. As far as overused, I’m trying to think. I’m tired of burger trends. I just want a good burger. I’m kind of over the whole molecular gastronomy thing. It has it’s time and place but if it doesn’t add anything to the dish, why do it? Just because it looks cool? What if it looks cool but tastes like shit?
MCR: Where do you see yourself in 10 / 20 years? Do you plan on staying in the area?
HJ: I don’t know. Whatever happens. I have no set agenda. I know I want to own my own place, a 30 or 40 seat restaurant. Not really a tasting menu but you know, you get what you get, whatever I’m serving . Right now I’m just going along for the ride, enjoying what I’m doing. Whatever happens, happens.
Hamilton was generous enough to share a mouth-watering recipe, try it out!
Hamilton’s Oyster Stew
6 TBSP BUTTER
2 TBSP SHALLOTS, PEELED, AND MINCED
1 EACH FRESH BAY LEAF
1/2 TSP FRESH THYME
1/2 CUP WHITE WINE
1 CUP MILK
2 CUPS HEAVY CREAM
1 PINT SHELLED OYSTERS WITH THEIR LIQUOR (DRAIN THE LIQUOR, KEEP SEPARATE)
1/2 CUP KABOCHA SQUASH, BLANCHED AND CUT IN SMALL CUBES
1 CUP SWISS CHARD, WASHED AND CHOPPED
1 PART OLD BAY SEASONING
1/4 PART CAYENNE PEPPER
1 PART SWEET PAPRIKA
In a medium saucepot over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter, add minced shallots and cook for 2 minutes until translucent. Add the bay leaf and fresh thyme, deglaze with white wine and reduce by half. Add milk, heavy cream (you may use all milk or all cream if desired) and add any oyster liquor. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to keep hot.
In a separate saucepot melt 3 tablespoons of butter and add the kabocha squash, swiss chard and oysters. Cook until edges of oysters begin to curl. Pour hot cream over oysters, season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Mix together the old bay seasoning, cayenne pepper and sweet paprika. Sprinkle on top of the bowl of stew.